Student Stories: From primary school teacher to piano school director
PTC graduate Jeni Warder recalls her journey from taking the leap to quit her day job and trying to make ends meet with a bit of after-school piano teaching, to becoming the director of her own piano school with over 200 students...
'Although the piano has always been a huge part of my life, I can’t say I ever added ‘piano teacher’ to my list of long-term career options when I was at school.
Of course, piano teaching was a nice little earner when I was 16 with a grade 8 and several family friends with young children. However, I have to admit I found teaching beginners a little boring. Following a tutor book was so dry. It wasn’t ‘real music’, and I struggled to be excited by it. However, I continued this teaching with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, throughout my music degree.
I was intent on teaching as a career, but I was too excited by other subjects to pin my colours to one mast, so I opted for primary teaching and trained for my PGCE in Cambridge. At that point the piano teaching took a back seat, before being made completely impossible by the demands of a full-time teaching job and young children. Although exhausting, I loved my time in school. The challenge of meeting the needs of such a range of children, within a very demanding curriculum, was a steep but rewarding learning curve. On the other hand, there were huge compromises to make, and the big one was family life. When I became pregnant with my third child, I knew my time in teaching was up. Three children under 7 was just too much to juggle without dropping something! So in the interest of the family life, I handed in my notice, crossed my fingers and hoped I’d make enough from a couple of evenings’ piano teaching to pay the bills.
This time, however, I knew I wasn’t going to be ‘just another piano teacher.’ My time in school had conditioned me to constant self-appraisal, and to being open to alternative, more progressive teaching methods. I was determined to find creativity and true musicality in even the youngest beginners, because this was now my main income, and I needed to feel positive about my work as much for myself as for my students.
It was at this point I discovered The Curious Piano Teachers - an online, international community of piano teachers, all with the common goal of improving what they do through the sharing of ideas, and regular online training. I felt there was something intriguing (curious, in fact!) about this community, and it turned out to be the best investment I ever made. It was through The Curious Piano Teachers that I learnt about the Piano Teachers’ Course UK. Several of the members had been on the course, and it sounded fantastic. What attracted me most was the sense of having colleagues, which appeared to be created between the students on the course.
So I took another leap of faith and enrolled on the Cert PTC in 2016. I was nervous on the first weekend, but I needn’t have worried – the tutors were welcoming and my fellow students friendly. The Purcell School quickly became a second home, and I looked forward to our weekends there (especially as the food was better than at home!).
The year became a landmark in my teaching career. The opportunity to take time out (on my ‘piano holidays’ as the children called them), gave me time to reflect on everything I was trying to achieve in my teaching. The days were long and intense, but the sessions were always relevant and inspiring. I found the residential weekends particularly useful, as there was occasionally time in the evenings to socialise, discuss ideas informally, or simply have a quiet evening to process the new information gathered that day.
The range of subjects covered by the course was vast, and consequently it is very difficult to define any one area of study that had the most impact on my teaching. However, I was enormously influenced by the clear passion shown towards the piano, and the sharing of its music, by all the highly skilled tutors on the course. Their enthusiasm was infectious. ‘Musical Moments’, a daily opportunity to hear one of the tutors play, were the highlight of everyone’s day. These small windows were a chance to reflect upon what playing the piano is really all about, and what it is we are teaching our students to appreciate. And in turn, we were given the opportunity to share our own playing. The tutors challenged us to improve our teaching, but also nurtured us as pianists. The steadily increasing performance opportunities throughout the year enabled us to grow in confidence and support each other over each new hurdle. Returning to performing again after such a long break was liberating, and allowed me to discover a new devotion to the instrument and therefore to my own students.
By the end of the PTC my student base was growing rapidly, and I was turning away more students than I was teaching. Thanks to the Piano Teachers’ Course UK my aspirations had been raised significantly, and I was now seeing myself developing a successful second career. Having felt so inspired by the teaching on the PTC, I was keen to find a way of sharing this passion with my own students. I wanted a purpose-designed space for creative teaching, group work, masterclasses and performances, to give students the best chance at seeing the ‘bigger picture’, to have fun in their music making from day one, and to motivate everyone to be the best they can be.
So, armed with a bucketful of determination and a handful of excel spreadsheets I spent a few months devising a way to make it work. Last year I finally managed it, and Keys Piano School opened in September 2018.
I now work with 4 other teachers! We all bring ideas and energy to Keys in different ways and we are now beginning a new journey of collective professional development. Our teaching begins with early years “FunKeys” before moving into our Foundation programme for ages 4-8. Through these sessions we focus on developing a love of creating and sharing music. No more following a tutor book! Our curriculum aims to develop key aural skills, basic keyboard geography and the early stages of notation, before moving children into either a traditional classical or pop focussed pathway. We also make space in our timetable for adult students, which is the most rapidly growing area of our teaching. Keys aims to make piano lessons appealing, modern and engaging, and as a result, the amount of interest in our school has been huge, and we are now providing tuition to over 200 students. We have no idea what is around the next corner but we’re really excited to find out!'
You can find out more about Jeni's Keys Piano School through her website: www.keyspianoschool.com